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See Inside November 2011

Experimental Philosophy: Thoughts Become the New Lab Rats

Some philosophers today are doing more than thinking deeply. They are also conducting scientific experiments relating to the nature of free will and of good and evil



Photograph by Zachary Zavislak

Think of the discipline of philosophy, and a certain sort of image springs to mind. Perhaps you visualize a person sitting comfortably in an armchair, lost in thought, perusing a few old books. Maybe you imagine a field that is scholarly, abstruse by nature and untethered to any grounding in real science. At any rate, you probably do not think of people going out and running experiments.

Yet oddly enough, a cadre of young philosophers have begun doing just that. These “experimental philosophers” argue that inquiry into the most profound questions of philosophy can be informed by actual investigations into why people think and feel as they do. To make progress on these questions, they use all the methods of contemporary cognitive science. They conduct experiments, team up with psychologists and publish in journals that had previously been reserved primarily for scientists. The result has been something of a revolution. Although the movement began only a few years ago, it has already spawned hundreds of papers, a steady stream of surprising results and some very strong opinions on every side.

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